Lovesick Saints – Dia De Los Muertos
Release Date: June 19, 2014
Record Label: Self-Released
Earlier this year, when The Hold Steady dropped their sixth full-length studio album, Teeth Dreams, many of the reviews for the record ranged from mixed to poor, with a big point of contention being the production. For many, the ultra-compressed sound of the disc, coupled with the bizarre, echoing vocal effects used on frontman Craig Finn’s voice throughout, ruined the good songs and made the middle-of-the-road ones worse. I didn’t necessarily align with that belief, praising the album instead for its expert cultivation of a new direction and for so effortlessly mastering a specific mood that resonated with me. However, as someone who has disagreed with production choices on plenty of occasions, I certainly understood why a single studio decision – in this case, the vocal effect – could ruin even the best songs for some people.
All of this brings me to Dia De Los Muertos, a new EP from the Arizona-based punk trio, Lovesick Saints, that suffers from the exact same production problems that brought Teeth Dreams down a peg. From the outset, it feels like this album is going to be damn near perfect: the guitar tones are crisp, loud, and anthemic, conjuring up thoughts of the Gaslight Anthem and Japandroids in equal measure, and the drums keep pace with foot-tapping rhythms that push the excitement up a notch. The issue is with frontman and band mastermind Tom Holliday, whose vocals are so drowned in distorted, distracting vocal effects on the first track, “One Foot in the Grave,” that it’s nearly impossible to enjoy the excellence of guitar-fueled adrenaline surrounding them.
Throughout the record, the production on the vocals repeatedly misses the mark, whether because of weird effects or simply because the vocals themselves are left too low in the mix. It’s a shame, because the thinness and muddiness of Holliday’s voice directly contrasts the full-fueled dynamite of his guitar work. The fact that he’s not technically the greatest vocalist ever is really beside the point here: while Holliday’s voice may not be pleasing in the way someone like Frank Sinatra’s was, his bratty snarl – caught somewhere between Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Tommy Walter of the Abandoned Pools – it’s still more or less the ideal instrument for punk music of this ilk. The problem is entirely with the mixing and production of the record, which rightfully makes the guitar parts the star (see the thunderous one-two punch of “Sick and Broken” and “This Ain’t It,” or the titular closing track, which is legitimately little more than a guitar solo), but which also forgets to give ample attention to the vocal melodies.
Had Holliday’s vocals been given the same polish as his guitar parts, then Dia De Los Muertos could have been a rock and roll record on the same level as some of the best punk bands making music today. As is, there are still wonderful moments of inspiration here, from the highland bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace” that kickstarts “War Story” (and conjures up thoughts of the 2010 Titus Andronicus classic, The Monitor) to the unapologetic “House of the Rising Sun” tribute that is the acoustic-led penultimate track, “Empty.” In fact, there is so much promise in these songs, so many little moments of brilliance, that it truly feels as if Lovesick Saints are just on the cusp of being a great band. For now, there are a few kinks left to work out in the sound, but I’ll be looking forward to the next EP to see if the promise can be realized.